Flooring the Competition
Innovation and sheer grit helped Ohelo Kaopio corner the Hawaii market on factory-direct flooring. His next target? The world.
It’s hardly surprising that Ohelo Kaopio would only ever work for himself. At age eight, the Wisteria Lane Flooring president was knocking on neighbors’ doors soliciting lawn-mowing jobs. By 10, he had started his first business employing neighborhood kids. “I figured I could make more money if my friends worked for me and were also knocking on doors asking to clean yards,” he says.
The Waimanalo native would grow up and stay true to his entrepreneurial nature, developing and marketing nationally the Baba Bear, a washable teddy bear / baby bottle insulator so popular it was even featured on The View. From there, Kaopio would branch into contract manufacturing and supplying for NFL teams and the Big Three automakers before launching the state’s largest factory-direct supplier of wood and laminate flooring.
RSVPstyle recently caught up with Kaopio to learn more about his successful business strategy and ambitions to conquer national and international markets.
RSVPstyle: What makes your company unique?
Kaopio: The primary difference between Wisteria Lane Flooring and its competitors is we are truly factory direct. Because we manufacture everything we sell and distribute directly through our wholly owned chain of showrooms with no retail markup, no traditional flooring retailer or wholesaler is able to compete with us in terms of pricing.
That’s the reason our prices are 20 to 80 percent lower than our competition and why we’ve had double-digit gains in sales every year through 2009 despite the tough economic times.
RSVPstyle: How is it that you’re able to manufacture and distribute everything you sell? That’s unusual.
Kaopio: Before getting into flooring, my primary business was contract manufacturing. For years, large enterprises used me as a consultant to manufacture products overseas. That experience, and the contacts I made in the process, allowed me to create a business model to manufacture, deliver and retail any product. Buyers would come to me with an idea. I would contact manufacturers in Asia capable of producing that product and oversee the production process that includes quality control, inspection, post production and delivery. I manufactured hundreds of items and basically dropped them on the doorstep of my customers.
Six years ago, a friend of mine who worked in the flooring industry told me he saw huge opportunities in laminate flooring. He brought me samples from other manufacturers and explained the different processes that made one type of flooring better than another. I took it from there. I sourced factories that could produce laminate flooring and educated myself about the production process. Then I narrowed down potential suppliers to a few factories that could help me develop a high-quality product.
RSVPstyle: What type of flooring do you sell?
Kaopio: We manufacture six different lines of engineered hardwood flooring, two lines of solid hardwood flooring, solid bamboo flooring, resilient flooring, and of course, our very popular Hawaiian Exotic laminate flooring. We also manufacture a complete line of support products like sealers, compounds, adhesives and moldings.
RSVPstyle: What’s important to look for in a flooring company?
Kaopio: Always turn to those who are able to educate you in the decision-making process and never be afraid to ask what you might think to be a dumb question. There is no such thing. If a company is able to answer your questions, it’s more likely they’ll have the expertise and products necessary to meet your needs and wants.
Also, do your due diligence. Compare quality, selection, warranty and price from at least three competitors. In the process, the best overall value will present itself.
RSVPstyle: What should customers consider when deciding what type of flooring would best suit their needs?
Kaopio: Customers should first identify their motive for wanting to install new flooring. Is it meant to provide greater perceived value to a home they plan to sell? Is it meant to replace old termite-ridden flooring in a home they plan to pass down to their children? Or is it simply to replace an allergy-causing carpet that’s driving them crazy? Our salespeople always ask these kinds of questions in order to help customers realize their goals.
RSVPstyle: Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of deforestation on the planet. If one is concerned about sustainability, what is the best of flooring to choose?
Kaopio: We carry many species of timber now harvested from managed forests. Also, a popular option is bamboo flooring. A single bamboo plant can reach maturity in four to seven years, making it what many consider to be the greenest of green flooring.
In addition, bamboo can be stained in a variety of colors, and through a process called “strand woven,” we can make bamboo flooring that is as hard and durable as most species of wood.
RSVPstyle: What’s the toughest part of your job?
Kaopio: Living out of a suitcase and working minimum 18-hour days via planes, trains and automobiles oftentimes for weeks on end. It’s not uncommon for me to sometimes be in 10 major cities in five days. It’s grueling, and by the time I get home, I feel like my body is a noodle.
RSVPstyle: What do you find most satisfying about your work?
Kaopio: Watching the Wisteria Lane Flooring Brand grow day by day.
RSVPstyle: What’s new on the horizon for you?
Kaopio: Since we’ve already expanded to the neighbor islands, this year we plan to open 12 new showrooms in California from San Diego to Ventura, as well as a 65,000-square-foot distribution center in Carson. In 2011, we’ll add another 12 locations in California. By 2020, we hope to have 200 locations from Kona to the Big Apple and, very likely, franchise agreements for license of the Wisteria Lane Factory Direct Flooring business model in Europe, Canada and Asia.